Sigourney Weaver Is Living Life on Her Own Terms

Jessica Michault,

Sigourney Weaver is an icon and a role model for women across the globe. Not just for the breadth and width of her work as an actress in films as varied as the Alien and Avatar series, as well as Gorillas in the Mist, The Ice Storm, Galaxy Quest and Dave; but also in the way she has lived her life and career fully on her own terms. Weaver has worked consistently over the past 40 years while raising a daughter alongside her husband of over 30 years, stage director Jim Simpson. If she has one defining characteristic, it is her endless curiosity about the world around her. And it is this inquisitiveness that makes her such a delight to watch on screen and to speak with in person.

A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 15th issue of ODDA Magazine.

I know you are currently shooting back to back films Avatar 2 and 3 with James Cameron, so let’s talk about what it is like to work 24/7 in a capture suit that tracks your movements to create a totally virtual character?
Yes, we’re doing 2 and 3, and it’s been a very exciting year. But we have been in capture suits or in sort of silver, wet-capture suits, and then we have a third capture suit for when we’re half in the water and half out. It’s kind of technical, but yeah it’s been a wild year and I’ve had a lot of fun!
I can’t really talk about the part but it’s been great to work with Jim again, he’s in great form. I think this one as much as the first one. The story is so compelling and so moving, full of action, but also tender and funny. And I think, technically, we’re working at a completely new level, I can’t understand half the conversations the tech guys have! I only know that whatever we’re going for is much more ambitious than what we did before, so it’s quite exciting.

And you’ve had to learn free dive and scuba diving?
It was fun because my husband actually trained with me. We started before the film, we went down to Florida Keys, we were certified and had the most marvelous instructor, who worked with Jim all the time on the other side of his life which is, you know, inventing, developing, and building submarines.
So, he worked with Jim on all the deep sea exploration and he was our teacher, so we couldn’t be in better hands.

What is it like to be under water like that? I mean, I’ve only ever snorkeled, what is that experience like?
Well, it’s wonderful, you feel like a whole new universe is opening up in front of you, that you never were allowed to go in.
And suddenly, like we’re in Hawaii, we went there for rehearsal in deep water before we started shooting. One time we did a night dive and we went to this place where the manta rays love to congregate. And we were all laying on the bottom of the ocean and these manta rays, these beautiful 8/10-feet long manta rays, just went right over us. Sometimes, skinning your forehead, they were kind of playing with us. So it opens up this world, it’s just extraordinary!
And then the free diving, Jim Cameron decided that we’re not going to pre- tend that the actors are under water, but we’re going to teach them to hold their breath for three minutes, so we can do takes under water.
It’s been incredibly challenging because there’s so many things about shoo- ting in water that they had to deal with, like the reflections. The surface was covered with these plastic balls, very easy to swallow by mistake, you don’t want to do that! But, to cover the surface, when the camera’s under water, it’s just one thing after another and we got these amazing tanks that can change into all kinds of different environments, but you know it’s very very ambitious.

15th Issue ODDA, GCDS turtleneck and earrings.

But I mean, honestly, between you and me, do you do anything other than ambitious films? Because Gorillas in the Mist, Aliens, Galaxy Quest and Dave, I mean all of that is really ambitious stuff. Is that what drives you to your roles, pushing yourself? What do you look for as far as that is concerned?
Oh, gosh. Well, you know, I never look for anything in a role. I never look for the role, I look for the story and if the story, to me, is something I would want to see and something that I think is relevant and has a good beginning middle and end, and a very good structure.When it passes all those tests, and the biggest test is: is it about something more than just a character? Then, if it passes this, if there’s enough for me to make something out of this, because I feel like in some of the movies you’ve mentioned, I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in, so many good movies that I think hold up pretty well because of the stories. I certainly don’t consider myself charming enough to sustain an audience’s interest for two hours if I’m not riding on a fantastic story.
And I don’t really think any actor is. So that’s what I look for. I’m not seduced by a role if it isn’t a project that I want to be a part of, or a director that I would like to work with because I have structured my career that way. It allows me to bounce around to so many different genres and work with all kinds of directors.

You do bounce around, so it’s the story that brings to a comedy or to a drama, but what about the director? You’ve read the story, you liked the script, do you prefer a director that’s hands on or one that lets you go with your gut and let things roll a little bit more freestyle? Where do you feel comfortable?
Well, you know, you have to be just opened to whatever happens. I think that there are some directors, like Roman Polanski, who is very hands on, and that can be also liberating, although it takes the whole film to learn how to deal with that. But it is very liberating when someone has a very specific idea of what it is, and I find that most directors, especially ones that I’ve worked with before, kind of trust me, and kind of let me go.
The only kind of director I don’t like to work with would be one that is caught up in how to shoot the day’s work, you know, who isn’t interested in talking about the scenes or talking about the characters. But that’s very rare and you get that, frankly, mostly in television, because they’re trying to make their day, using all the cool shots they can and it seems like they could care less, which kind of leaves you high and dry. I like to be directed.

Have you actually directed anything yourself, and if not is it something that you’ve ever fantasized about doing?
You know, I have thought about it because I think I would work well with actors. I could certainly tell them what not to worry about. Actors worry about so many things!

What shouldn’t they worry about?
You know, they are always worrying about how they look, stuff like that, and they don’t realize probably that the reason they’re cast is because of who they are, actually, as people. The sense of character, within the character they’re playing. You sense their character, who they are as a person in the character, and I would encourage actors to be more themselves. It sounds like a contradiction, but brings your life forth to your character, I think that’s what people want to see.
And I think that this can hold young actors up because they feel that there’s a certain thing that they’re supposed to be doing, they don’t realize that they’re already doing it. They don’t have to worry about it.

15th Issue of ODDA, total look from Prada.

Ok, so you’ve done all these amazing roles. Which character do you feel that was the closest to you in real life?
Well, I’m not trying to be difficult but really the one that’s closest to me, and the most challenging, is the one I’m doing now in Avatar 2 and 3, but I can’t talk about that, sorry!
I know it’s ridiculous, and some day you’ll see the film and you’ll laugh because you’ll remember that I’ve said it’s the closest to me and it really is. And it is kind of wicked that they’ve cast me as this character because they know me very well, it’s not a side I show.

Can you tell me if it’s a new character?
It’s a totally new character. Other than that, I’m just trying to think who would be like me. Oddly enough, I think of Tawny, Gwen, in Galaxy Quest. Which was what I’ve said to the director. You know they didn’t want to see anyone who’s done any science-fiction for that movie, my agent told me that and I thought, “They’re out of their mind!” You know, if anyone can make fun of this genre, it’s the people who have done these movies. I had to kind of talk my way in. And then it was my decision to make her blonde, and she was already insecure, but I just decided to go with how I would sometimes feel if I had to go to outer space, really as Sigourney, and play that. So really, Tawny and Gwen are pretty close to me.

Is Tawny the character you’re recognized most for these days? Do people still come up and quote a line she says from that film or is it a different character from another film?
You know it’s all over the map. Certainly, kids think of me from Alien, or Avatar, or Finding Dory because my voice is in that. And then, people who are older, recall Gorillas in The Mist, Years of Living Dangerously, The Ice Storm, things like that. It really depends and it’s so nice to jump around a lot because, to do comedies and more serious kinds of films, that’s the joy of being an actor.

Why do you think you’ve never have really been pigeon holed? I mean, that’s exceptional. You never had a low, you’ve really been able to move throughout the Hollywood system all these years. What is your secret?
Well, it’s not really a secret. I was told when I was at drama school that I had no talent and that I’d never get anywhere. So, I remember thinking I was crushed because what my goal was. My mother was a British actress, she worked in Repertory theater for a couple of years and that was my dream. To be in a company, and do big parts, small parts, comedies, and just do everything!
And when I was told I had no talent I though, “Ugh, now I have to rethink everything.” So, eventually, I got out of that place and I started working on all these new plays with my friends and I was thinking, “Well, I can’t work in a repertory company, but I can think about creating my own repertory, doing the same thing but with whatever jobs I’m offered.
So that being my kind of structure, like I don’t care if I’m playing the maid, I’ll play the queen in the next one… you know what I mean?
I just like to jump around and do different things. It all makes sense to me because I’m in this sort of invisible repertory company of actors where we all take turns doing different things ad having different responsibilities. I love that, I love being part of an ensemble.
My part in Avatar is not the biggest part but, to me, of course, it is the most interesting part!


15th Issue ODDA, total look from Prada.

Let’s talk about your voice now, because while researching you I’ve discovered how much voice work you’ve done on Wall E, Dory, and everything, does that use a different creative muscle for you? What is that kind of acting like?
I love doing it, first of all some of the things I have done are just so interesting. And what I find is since I know nothing about narration, really, I kind of go in and take a whack at it and let them kind of tell me who I should be. In other words, for Planet Earth I had to very much flatten down what I said, and so I did quite a few of those and that was very interesting for me because it was more narration that I have ever done before.
And other times, clearly, they want to have a more personal approach; so I would say every single job is quite different and I have a wonderful voice over my agent who’s always coaching me to bring more of myself to the narration, which is a tricky thing. Not necessarily narration, but sometimes I read for other things and to put yourself or your voice and have that represent you is a very interesting challenge. I enjoy it, but it’s not easy I must say.

That’s really interesting to know. We were talking earlier about the motion-capture suits that you were wearing and, because this is an interview for a fashion magazine, I’m wondering if you can talk a little about fashion in your life, like clothing getting you into a role, or may- be a moment when fashion really was impactful for you, like when you were growing up something your mother wore or something you wore at the Oscars. Do you have a moment when you really felt the power of clothing in your life to a certain extent?
You know, I think one of the funny things about doing motion capture is you don’t get a costume. I’m so dependent on costumes, and it’s such a big partner for me for all the roles I play. I would say the best example would be The Ice Storm because Janey was such a cypher and I felt that thanks to Carol, who designed the costumes and found these old fabrics, all these horrible polyester fabrics. The clothes were practically falling apart by the time we finished, but my costume was so incredible, and between that and my hair and makeup, the outside absolutely told me where I was going. Same thing with Galaxy Quest. Sometimes, the costume is so simple, like in Death and the Maiden, that red, white and blue costume, and that tells you everything.
I get more from costumes than just about anything else. I think of my capture suit, which is unique to my character. And we have stickers we put on this like Velcro. Patches we put on, we stick them on each other’s costumes and they say ridiculous things like, “Follow me on Tinder!” and things like that. Because they’re just black with a few bright markings.
So you have to develop a costume even if you have no costume. You have to develop an identity.

15th Issue ODDA, total look from Mulberry.

What do you attribute your long and happy married life to, in Hollywood, which really doesn’t have that great of a track record when it comes to marriages?
Well first of all we live in New York. I think it’s a big plus. We’re not a Hollywood couple, and I’m not sure that anyone is. And, you know, we’re a very normal, boring couple. My husband ran a theater company for 20 years. We’re very active downtown with this wonderful group of young actors, young writers and directors. And, you know, I just think when you’re in the world, you forget it’s such a tiny microcosm where you’re a movie star and it’s fine. You go on the red carpet… but that is such a micro part of what you do.

What about ageing in such an image-driven business. You are in your 60s now, what are your impressions, reactions or your life history been as far as you’ve been experiencing this progression through your career?
I think it’s an amazing time for women now and in every way. I think that we’re seeing so many women directors, women writers and so many actresses starting to direct like Greta Gerwig. Not waiting, but just jumping in! I just feel, in spite of what may be going on politically, in this country in many other ways it’s the most interesting time for women.
But I also feel there’s been a great sense of sisterhood and pride in who we are. And the women coming forward about #MeToo really changed the landscape. I don’t think the same stuff will be able to go on like that. We have a long way to go. In Hollywood, for instance now, there really are more roles for women, but when you look around and it would be nice to see women in all these different capacities: in sound and in construction, in lighting and all these different things, that has not happened. I think partially because the unions have training programs, but maybe they don’t have enough support to train people to make sure your crew is diverse.
I think the bigger worry for me is not Hollywood, but when I look at the fast-food industry and the hotel industry: think of how much might be going on there that can keep women down. A manager who requires sexual favor if you want to keep that low level job. We have a lot of work to do in these various industries. In November we’re going to see this army of women running. I don’t know when, but they are certainly out there now.

What kind of advice would you give to your 25-year-old self or a young person coming into the industry ?
It is very hard to give anyone advice I think, but I would say to myself, “Don’t be so serious.” And, in fact, I think Jim Cameron has observed. I’m much less serious about my work than I used to be. In my 20s especially, I missed out a lot of things because I was thinking about work and looking for work.
I would say to my 25-year-old self, “Just relax, don’t stop having fun because you’re hoping for a job.”
I feel like the universe will sort this out for you. I think you can just be in the moment and you know life will let you know pretty quickly whether you’re on the right path or not. So just go for it. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right business I kept being offered work, but I couldn’t actually say out loud or to myself, “I want to be an actor” until I had my first paying job, which wasn’t till I was in my early 20s.

15th Issue ODDA, thirt Versave, pants Roberto Cavalli, boots and gloves Raf Simons, coat OFF-WHITE c/o Virgil Abloh.

What is it like to be nominated for an Oscar?
Well, it’s a terrific acknowledgement by your community. That’s what’s so cool about it. The nomination is a kind of a “job well done” clap on the back. To actually win is the whole community vote. And it’s quite an amazing night to be there with all these people. You have so much in common with many, most of whom you’ve never met. People outside think you all know each other really well. I don’t of course! But it’s a chance to be with your community and celebrate what you do.
I think, ironically, that I’ve done better work that has not been acknowledged, but that’s just because you have to be in a movie that catches fire and that has support.
That’s a large part of what seems to get you to the Oscars. The movie has to catch the attention of the audience and the community. And I think that’s perfectly valid, but they do miss out on a lot of wonderful films like Detroit, which was an amazing film last year. Awfully difficult to watch and I was very shocked.

You have done dream things like going and hanging out with gorillas in the wild, freediving and scuba diving, traveling the world for your work. What’s left on your bucketlist of things you still really want to do?
Wow, what a wonderful question! I think now that my husband is retired, it’s also funny because he’s younger than I am but he’s retired! And he’s been out here really for the first time ever in my career. I’ve been in a location where my husband and my daughter are both out here and we’ve had the most wonderful year to sort of enjoying life in California and the farmers markets and the wonderful L.A. Philharmonic and all the things that are out here.
What I would say is I’m looking forward to doing more traveling with him. We’re just trying to figure out all the places we would like to go. Also I feel like I’m at the top of my craft and I’d love to sink my teeth into something that’s very challenging. So, I am looking around for that kind of story. But, on the other hand, I feel like there’s so many things I haven’t done: I’d love to go around the world just listening to music. Just immerse myself in the world music and see more of the world.
Being able to travel for my job is one of the greatest things I’ve been given in my career. This chance to work all over the world with people from those countries doing something we all love.

Jessica Michault is the Senior Vice President of industry relations at GPS Radar by Launchmetrics. She is also the editor-at-large for ODDA magazine and contributes to publications like the New York Times, the Business of Fashion, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Mixte magazine.

the writer

Jessica Michault

Jessica Michault is the Senior Vice President of industry relations at GPS Radar by Launchmetrics. She is also the editor-at-large for ODDA magazine and contributes to publications like the New York Times, the Business of Fashion, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Mixte magazine.

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